Monday, August 20, 2007

Whats a Culinary Grad got on you?!

By The Foodist

Sometimes the conversations that echo the hallowed halls of the CIA aren’t always the most positive ones. Sometimes they hiss of disgust and mistrust. But a lot of times they are of great importance and should be brought into a greater spectrum of discussion.

This afternoon at lunch I heard two B Blockers (B block is the first block you take upon arriving at the CIA. It’s an intro and basics to get you used to the campus) talking about a topic I myself have discussed and debated a million times over. I like to think I should be as tired of talking about it as I am talking about what constitutes "Food Art", but for a very important reason I am not.

Culinary School vs. School of Hard Knocks. Which is better?

It’s impossible to say I think. It depends heavily on what you want in the field. There are success stories and horror tales from both sides. You have your Bourdains, your Achatzs: the graduates of culinary schools who have staked out their place in the history books of modern food. Then you have your pan slinging, cursing, tough as nails cooks who have worked themselves to the bone but have created remarkable cuisine and even more remarkable stories.

So standing at the crossroads, what do you choose and how do you choose it?

Neither path is really easy. Some would say Culinary School is the "child's way out", while others would say the school of hard knocks would be a "dead-end".

I really got into it on my blog and created a poll which I invite you all the vote on.

The debate I overheard raged and continued past my allowed lunch time, so I never got to hear the end of it, but I can imagine what the outcome was. Neither side agreed and neither side felt any better about the opposing stance.

But the argument got me thinking about about the whole situation. I began to wonder if the majority of culinary students were even aware of the impact that we have on the industry and on the food world in general.

I also wonder if the old vanguard is finally going to die out. The time of screaming old world chefs has been at its twilight for some time. But now, in the face of increasing pressure to attend culinary schools for the chance at prosperity in a kitchen I wonder if the sun is finally going to set on the tried and true, the old and firm pillar on which the industry was so slowly and uneasily built.


simon said...

I'll say way I think from an outsider perspective (which might or might not be right.) I think that being a successful cook requires a number of skills that can either be learned at a culinary school or in the business. However, in the school of hard knocks, you might need to have a little more patience and probably more will than at school to go beyond, both of which are not necessarily a bad thing. I don't think either makes much of a difference for the talented cook, he will get the skills necessary, and either is good for different individuals.

And I'll say that to become a chef, and not a cook, you'll need something that is stressed more in culinary school and that you'll have to do on your own in the school of hard knocks: taste new things, be creative, intellectualize food, and finding a style of your own. Those things come from the person, whether or not they got into the business by the CSA or by scrubbing pans.

Don Luis said...

As another outsider, I doubt that old-school (think apprenticeship) is going away any time soon. Some of the best chefs around made their bones that way: Batali, Ramsey, White, Puck, and of course del Grosso.

In my opinion, culinary school is like any other college: you get some tools that prepare you for the real thing, but if you are passionate, driven, and clever, you will make it with or without "formal" training.

tyronebcookin said...

NOT that I am going to give away any certain times I was anywhere...BUT this is what I saw/see:

When I was coming up there were plenty of chances for me to work in kitchen without a permit to work, or special 'license' from school (not college, high school)to make me only work certain hours during school.

And before the age of proper working (15 or 16 at the time) I had plenty of 'apprenticeships' of people who would enthusiastically let me work for free! Ha!

I even made cookies and brownies at age 4 for a local 4H club (and you may be able to archive that picture from the newspaper in Greenfield Mass.) when I actually lived a year or so in the North.

Later, after High School I had some great apprenticeships as I hopped around getting all the experience I could.

Culinary School (the closest one) was at least 4 to 6 hours away. And they weren't that 'chic' or cool (or even thought about that much) back then.

After college (to which I learned some computer skills but did no cooking classes) when my entry level status programmer future fell thru I went right back to working restaurants and catering and usually made more money than my graduating mates (but now, if they stuck with it, are probably making more than me). I ran the evening shift at a Little Caesars Pizza and slid the key under the owners door after closing at night (he lived close to me).

I went on to complete some managerial training positions by some well known entities (think Olive Garden and Landry's Seafood - or corporate names General Mills and Landry's Restaurants Inc...they probably own some places you currently already eat at) but I got tired of getting passed over by 'in-house' favorites or 'family'. Choosing to work some more 'fine-dining' and gourmet 'style' places for local owners and operators...

Now, having said that I think today's culinary world frown on you if you can't at least produce a certificate if you are under 35. If you choose to go the whole four years, then yes, maybe you might start out making more money than the Hard Knocks style. But it all really relies of economy and where you live, right?

For me, I have apprenticeships, references, years of experience, some manager training by the 'big boys' so I would say I can get paid decent if I really want to...

Hard Knocks today, is probably going to be twice as hard to get paid or hired decently without a culinary school background because of all the media surrounding this industry.

My two cents, right off the top.

I applaud the survival of both. But I think the hard knocks guy is going to strive twice as hard and long (in today's time) to get paid and have the same advances as the culinary school graduate.

Unless of course you travel thru another country working your way thru kitchens and experiences, sometimes those foreign travels/internships produce clout as equal as culinary school...but that may be another debate.

Jennie/Tikka said...

My take on it is this (and this may be purely just my personal preference):

I can't stand walking into a situation totally cold. I despise Day 1 of a new job with zero information to work with. So for me, culinary school was a no-brainer, because at LEAST I knew SOMETHING instead of nothing.

In a lot of cases I discovered I already knew more than I thought I did. In others - that I had a lot to learn.

I don't see how anybody who doesn't go to school can get say - culinary math under control from just working their normal shift. If they aren't actively doing the math and learning to keep the place profitable - what good are all the cooking skills?? You have to learn to run the business end of it, in my opinion.

Chefs don't always put the most practical menu creations out there, and sometimes they can bleed the profit margin dry.

In school I learned the business side of it - the accounting, the marketing, the menu costing, etc. I stay up where we need to be that day, that week, the month - to make a profit. I doubt I could have gotten that from a 9 hour shift at the Fry-o-later.

Jennie/Tikka said...

The most important thing I learned in culinary school was not how to cook - it was how to write a great business proposal.

The Foodist said...

Simon, Don, and Jennie/Tikka:

You are all correct in the fact that culinary school is about more then just cooking. Im reminded of a comment that Gary Allen left on my blog some time ago when I debated out loud what makes a good chef.

"I make that distinction because "chef" is an occupation, a career, an entire spectrum of activities, of which cooking is only one (think of all the business, law, health, and personnel management details a chef must juggle to keep a kitchen going)."

It dawned on me then that he was right. I knew it, I just didnt think about it.

A great chef is one that can not only run a kitchen but run the buisiness of running the kitchen.

That is one benefit to schooling is it does give you a starting point for that aspect. Much like J/T mentioned about culinary math... how often would you get a chance to learn P&L sheets and costing via OJT? not unless someone saw that potential in you I would imagine.

This brings up another point. Alot of culinary students wont even end up staying in kitchens slaving over hot lines, and places like the CIA know this.

Thats why so many R&D and Food Labs come to Career Fairs here. Alot will end up in bottom rung management positions and the like and then end up spending alot of time in suits doing paperwork.

They even tell you that over and over again here. "We arent grooming you to be line cooks, were grooming you to be leaders, managers, the forefront of the industry".

Its a notion that is almost crammed down our throats here, but they are right. The classes here focus more on buisiness and culinary basics then anything else. Understand why this or that happens to food and then understand how you can control the cost of doing that.

I guess alot of this is forefronted by my opinion,wants, and desires for my own path. I never wanted to end up behind a desk (At least not for awhile) My dream has been to sling it out on hotlines for a long time gaining knowledge and experience before I went another way (plan was food writing or teaching).

I highly respect those who come from the "old way". If they make it to a point of stature they are as tough as nails, devoted to the core, and can stand against a torrent of chits flying their way.

The students themselves are as varied as the directions they each head after leaving here, where each ends up will be impossible to say. Statisticaly many wont even stay in the industry. So I guess in a sense the "Real World" weeds out those not fit for the work one way or another, wether you come from Hard Knocks or from School.

My story (thus far) is not far off from where you got your start. The whole time Ive been looking for something more, something that inspires me from the day to day. Its been hard to find, and I think Ive come close time and time again.

I wont be so arrogant as to say I feel as though I destined for greatness, but I want desperatly to do great things.

I saw school as my best way to get me closer to that goal, but from time to time I wonder if I wont slip through the cracks and fall into the comfortable reliability
that a corporate gig can offer one.

Its hard to say at this point, but the thought of the stigmatizium that has attached itself to Culinary grads worries me endlessly.

Bob del Grosso said...


I pulled this out of an email sent to me by a friend of mine who is one of your professors at CIA.
I'd asked him if he knew what percentage of students leave the industry and after how long following graduation.

He made some calls to several people who work in the industry and was kind enough to summarize their responses thusly

1. Very little attrition within the first 5 years.
2. Between 5 and 8 years about 7%. This was attributed to slow growth potential (pay scales) and lack of benefits.
3. After 10 years about a 12% attrition rate. Attributed to burn-out, changes in health conditions, and desire to "try something different".

Frankly, I was surprised by this. I thought the attrition rate would be higher.

The Foodist said...


Thanks for the numbers.

That seems suprising to me as well, considering what a big stink that New York Times article made a few months ago. I think the number they gave was what, like only 3% still in kitchens after 5 years?

I think the high educational cost is a big factor, that and burnout Im sure.

People get burnt out on cooking faster then anything I think I have ever seen.

The Foodist said...

oh and its also suprising to me as well because I still talk to some of my classmates from 2 years ago. Only 5 out of my graduating class are still in a kitchen, 3 are now front of the house, 2 in desk jobs in the food service sector, the rest have all but left food behind them.

Bob del Grosso said...

"left food behind them"

-sounds like the translation of a native American name for a tribe suffering from an epidemic of incontinence :-)

Jennie/Tikka said...

Most of my graduating class left the industry, too - because they couldn't afford to repay their loans on what they were making. They couldn't afford to use the education they had just gotten.

I knew that going in so I had a plan to pay off the loan a.s.a.p. (so as not to get stuck with monthly loan repayments).

The only reason I'm able to work in this biz is because we refinanced our house to pay for my $40,000 in student loans.